‘49th Parallel’ – WWII on Canadian soil on Max and Criterion Channel

During World War II, Michael Powell and his writer/producer partner Emeric Pressburger were enlisted to make films in support of the British war effort, but while many of their contemporaries turned out routine thrillers Powell and Pressburger created inventive dramas with a patriotic purpose.

Their wartime adventure 49th Parallel (1941), about a small German U-Boat crew stranded in Canada off Hudson’s Bay, is a prime example of wartime propaganda turned into rousing entertainment with their smart writing, engaging characters, and creative cinema.

As the Germans traverse the length of Canada, attempting to outrun authorities while seeking a passage to the still neutral United States, they encounter a wide array of citizens from all walks of life: a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier with an over-enthusiastic accent), a Hutterite community (with Anton Walbrook and Glynis Johns), an intellectual aesthete (Leslie Howard), and a two-fisted AWOL soldier being sent back over the border (Raymond Massey). As the Nietzschian sermons of Nazi leader Hirth (Eric Portman) fall on deaf ears, his party dwindles in number and the people of Canada rise up to stop his escape, not so much with violence as pure defiance.

The rhetoric isn’t subtle—the film was designed to both strengthen ties to Canada and encourage America’s entrance into the war—and it is episodic by design. What Powell focuses on (apart from the propaganda) is the vivid location shooting, which provides a marvelous travelogue of Canada’s landscapes and natural beauty and a loving portrait of the rich culture north of the 49th parallel.

The picture earned Emeric Pressburger an Academy Award for his screenplay and the film was nominated for best picture.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
49thParallel (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection DVD features commentary, a BBC documentary on the careers of Powell and Pressberger, and the 1943 film short “The Volunteer” directed by Powell and Pressberger and starring Ralph Richardson, plus an accompanying booklet.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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